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How The Latest Phase Of The Pandemic Is Playing Out Across The U.S.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

This week looks very different from last after a load of big coronavirus news. First, an expansion in vaccination. Children as young as 12 can now get the Pfizer shot. And then, of course, the CDC quickly followed that news with a surprise announcement. Masks are no longer necessary in most places for vaccinated people. Now, that second announcement set off a cascade of confusion and some controversy as people wondered, how do we know who's vaccinated? Is the honor system enough? Well, here to discuss how this latest phase of the pandemic is playing out around the country, we have brought in Anna Huntsman of Ideastream in Cleveland, Kate Wells of Michigan Radio, and Sam Whitehead with WABE in Atlanta.

Welcome to all three of you.

ANNA HUNTSMAN, BYLINE: Hi there.

KATE WELLS, BYLINE: Hey.

SAM WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Good to be here.

KELLY: All right. Kate, I'm thinking let's start with you and start in Michigan, which I'm doing because you all have had the terrible surge this spring. I know things are a little better now, but there are still dozens of people dying every day there. Are people in Michigan embracing the new vaccine eligibility for young teenagers?

WELLS: Yeah. Well, we certainly had kids get hit really hard in this latest surge. We had a record number of children hospitalized last month. And at least for the vaccine clinics that I visited, the appointments were packed with the 12 to 15-year-olds. One thing that stuck out about several families, actually, is these kids who have been really living with a lot of anxiety, those who've had high-risk family members. One of them, Allegra Blackwood, that I met, she's 13. She lives in Ann Arbor. So even as these other kids have been able to go back to school in person, Allegra stayed home. And she talks about just how excited she was to get the vaccine.

ALLEGRA BLACKWOOD: And then I found out that my best friend was also getting a shot around the same time. And she came in today, and I got to talk to her, which is amazing. It took all my self-restraint not to go and hug her because I really missed her.

WELLS: And you can just tell that this is breaking Allegra's mom's heart. And she's really hoping that for her kid, this will be the start of things getting a little lighter and not having to carry so much of this burden.

KELLY: Yeah. Gosh, yeah. It's been so much for all of us, but for kids to carry, it has been a lot. Anna Huntsman, jump in here from Cleveland. Because I know you have visited some schools that have been holding vaccination clinics during the school day. How's it going?

HUNTSMAN: Yeah. I actually had the opportunity to go to a clinic in a middle school. And what I heard from students is they're wanting to get vaccinated for pretty predictable reasons - seeing their friends, having sleepovers, getting back to sports, things like that. But some kids are actually nervous about the vaccines being so new. I spoke with Kiessa Davis. She's 12, and she told me she's one of the only students she knows who is getting the shot.

KIESSA DAVIS: They were, like, kind of laughing because I was getting it. But no matter really what people say about it, it's like it's a vaccination. It's going to help me not catch COVID. It's like if you guys want to get sick, you guys can get sick, but I'm going to stay COVID free.

HUNTSMAN: And not all schools are actually bringing the shots into the school. Some are actually working with pharmacies. Others are bussing high school students to mass vaccination sites.

KELLY: So different approaches. What about in Georgia, Sam? Because I know vaccination rates there have been not great. They're among the lowest in the country. And I wonder, is that also playing out for these newly eligible teenagers? What are you hearing?

WHITEHEAD: Well, surprisingly, Georgia's public health department started offering shots to 12 to 15-year-olds a few days earlier than most states. They went with this shortly after the FDA authorized Pfizer's vaccine but before the CDC weighed in. And I asked state public health officials why they did that. It seems that they were worried about people hearing the news that this vaccine was coming for younger kids and then not being able to find a shot. Their philosophy seems to be rates are so low here, if someone presents them with an arm, they're going to put a shot in it.

KELLY: (Laughter) Right.

WHITEHEAD: Now, I haven't heard about schools really getting involved like Anna mentioned in Cleveland, but it's important to note here, the school year in Georgia is nearly over. But these new mask guidelines from CDC did cause some confusion in a few school districts here. Some in metro Atlanta last week immediately made masks optional after the CDC issued their guidance. Then when the CDC clarified their guidance over the weekend saying schools shouldn't do that, these districts stuck with it.

KELLY: All right. Well, let's turn to the new mask guidance, this other big development of the last week. Because in Georgia, there never was a state mask mandate in place, not at any time during the pandemic, right?

WHITEHEAD: That's correct. Governor Brian Kemp never put in place a statewide mask mandate, but cities and counties could put in mask rules. Savannah, for example, down on the Georgia coast, is one of the first in the state to do so. So last week, when the CDC says fully vaccinated people don't need masks, Savannah said they're going to keep their mask rule on the books even though the county where Savannah is located is dropping theirs. So the confusion continues.

KELLY: Gosh, super confusing. Yeah. And I wonder what that actually looks like on the ground. Are you, just when you're out and about, seeing people not wearing masks in places where, I don't know, a month or two ago they might have been?

WHITEHEAD: There was a real notable example this weekend. Our soccer team down here, Atlanta United, they had previously been requiring masks. That requirement became a recommendation. And we had 40,000 people at a soccer game in Atlanta this weekend, very little distancing, very little masking. The team was offering vaccines at this event, so things were not totally normal. Notably, our governor, Brian Kemp, has not said a lot about these new recommendations from the CDC. He seems to be really focused on gearing up for his 2022 reelection campaign, and the pandemic just isn't something he talks about a lot these days.

KELLY: Which is an interesting contrast from Ohio, where, Anna, you also have a Republican governor, Mike DeWine, who has been super involved in trying to motivate people to get vaccinated. He set up a lottery. For five lucky adults who get vaccinated, you have the chance to win a million dollars.

HUNTSMAN: Yes. And there's also an opportunity for vaccinated teens. They're going to pick five of them to receive a full-ride scholarship to any public Ohio university. So, I mean, these are some pretty big incentives here for people to get vaccinated. But then, Governor DeWine gave a presser yesterday and said Ohio would now be following those CDC guidelines. Fully vaccinated people can now forego masks. But an interesting wrinkle is that workplace compliance agents had been going to bars and restaurants and citing them for mask compliance. But DeWine said yesterday that's over.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MIKE DEWINE: It's going to be impossible for them to determine who's vaccinated and who is not vaccinated. And that's the problem that businesses face.

KELLY: Well, I mean, the problem that businesses face not just in Ohio, but all over. Kate Wells in Michigan, let me give you the last word. Again, because of how high the cases and the death rate has been in Michigan, how is the state responding to the CDC move on masks?

WELLS: Well, you could tell that it really caught them off guard because Governor Gretchen Whitmer here - she's a Democrat - she had been using the state's mask mandate as sort of the ultimate incentive for getting more people vaccinated, basically saying if 70% of the state got vaccinated, she said she would lift the mask mandate. But then the CDC's guidance came out, and that benchmark is essentially just moot at this point. The state reversed its mask mandate. And it's also confusing here. You know, we've got grocery store chains like Kroger saying they are going to do masks. Another big grocery chain, Meijer, who is based here in Michigan, said on Friday, you know, we're still going to require masks. Then we heard about all these national chains over the weekend, like Target and Costco, dropping their requirements. And then yesterday, Meijer says, actually, just kidding. Vaccinated people don't have to wear masks. So a lot of this is really being left up to businesses, and they're the ones having to make these tough decisions.

KELLY: So many changes in motion right now.

Thank you very much to all three of you.

HUNTSMAN: Thank you.

WHITEHEAD: Thank you.

WELLS: Thank you.

KELLY: That was Kate Wells in Michigan, Anna Huntsman in Cleveland and Sam Whitehead in Atlanta.

(SOUNDBITE OF BONOBO'S "RECURRING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.